Welcome again to Innovation Wednesday here at FC, the day we focus on the inventive, the original, the daring, the super creative – even more than usual.
Sure, we’d all like to be innovative 24-7 (yes, even in our dreams), but sorry, it doesn’t happen. At least, not for anyone I know. Other stuff gets in the way. Deadlines. Paperwork. Meetings. YouTube (Seriously. Have you seen this Ode to Zach Braff? One hilarious distraction).
The point is, innovation is like exercise. You’ve got to make it a habit, you’ve got to schedule time for it, or it slips through the cracks in your over-booked life. That’s the idea behind Innovation Wednesday, to dedicate some time to developing those creativity muscles.
Today’s first stop for inspiration is Kalamazoo, Michigan, by way of Chicago. Recently FC hosted a reader lunch in the Windy City featuring Ron Kitchens, the CEO of Southwest Michigan First in Kalamazoo, a member of this year’s Fast 50. As I told the group, it’s the first economic development organization to make the list and it did so for a simple reason: It’s one of the best outfits of its kind.
Here’s a small organization in a community of just 77,000 or so residents that’s solving many of the problems that have flummoxed other towns and cities around the country, particularly in the Rust Belt. Plant closings. Rising unemployment. Few business opportunities. Low high-school graduation rates.
Southwest Michigan First took the entrepreneurial route. For example, in anticipation of Pfizer closing local R&D facilities in 2003, Kalamazoo business leaders scrambled to find ways to keep out-of-work scientists in the area. They managed to raise $50 million (an impressive amount for a town of its size) to start a for-profit venture fund to support life-science startups. Two weeks after the announced layoffs, the group opened a business incubator that within three months was home to 15 new life-science companies. Four of them are graduating from the incubator this year and moving into bigger offices. One has already made breakthroughs in cancer research.
Unlike a lot of economic development groups that make building a fancy new stadium a top priority, Southwest Michigan First is focused on its core strength, life-sciences, rather than sports. “Sure we’d love a stadium, but we built an incubator,” Kitchens told the group in Chicago. “It’s more relevant. It creates jobs in a way that a sports facility doesn’t.”
Sure enough, Southwest Michigan is now leading the state in job creation.